Matching Yeast to Style: Tips from the Pros

Brewer: Marc Worona is the head brewer at Stoudts Brewery in Adamstown, PA

We’re very into matching yeast strains to style at Stoudts. We have as many as twelve different styles going at any given time and can have as many as five different yeast strains running. For our lagers we use a traditional Weihenstephan strain. For our ales we have a standard ale yeast — it’s clean with some fruit esters coming out in the finished beer. Our weizen is a combination of two different wheat strains. That’s rather untraditional. We created a blend between the Weihenstephan weizen strain and another wheat strain that gives us a good combination of esters and phenols in the finished beer. Our Belgian ale requires a strong abbey- style yeast. Our Scotch ale uses a bottom-fermenting ale yeast that ferments cool, between 50° to 55° F. We lager the Scotch ale as well.

In determining the yeast strain, our first step is to decide what we want the beer to taste like. We choose the grains and the color and the amount of residual sugar we want, then move on to the catalogs and literature and style books to determine which yeast is going to give us the characteristics and flavors we’re looking for. We rely a certain amount on literature, but there are some tricks we can employ to get other flavor characteristics out of the yeast. With a weizen, for example, phenolic flavors can be created by stressing the yeast, so we might choose to underpitch the yeast or else under-oxygenate the wort. Either of these would give us some more phenols in the finished brew. With the Scotch ale, we keep the fermentation temperatures as low as possible to keep the ester tastes down. The same would be true of lagers. For lagers we want a yeast that is a low producer of diacetyl and flocculates out well, so we get a beer that clarifies and filters  nicely. Of course, it also needs to withstand the colder fermentation temperatures and provide a clean flavor that brings out the flavor of the malt and hops.

It’s very important to match yeast strain to style. You can really experiment with your yeast — see what you get out of it under different temperature conditions or with different grain profiles and different hop additions in your homebrew.

Brewer: Tim Herzog brews at Flying Bison Brewing Company in Buffalo, NY

You can look at yeast strains and see that they add a distinctive flavor to the beer. For our Aviator Red and our German Kölsch, we wanted to be able to control the flavor based on what ingredients we used and not have flavors generated through the yeast. So we looked for something neutral and discovered Wyeast 1332 (Northwest Ale) yeast. This new strain flocculates well, it filters brightly and it ferments down quickly if you let it.

Our homebrewing experience helped us with our yeast selection. Since we’re certified beer judges we were able to do much of the sensory evaluation ourselves when deciding which yeast to use. Sensory evaluation is simple. You need to become familiar with the beer you’re going to brew. If you want to make British bitter, then you should sample Fuller’s ESB, Young’s Ramrod and Bass Ale  side by side. Take notes and compare your thoughts. Once you know what you like and don’t like, you can use your sensory evaluations to match ingredients. These include malt, hops and yeast.

These days the parentage of yeast is thinly veiled in lab descriptions. An  ESB yeast will leave a trace of diacetyl and malt. A Thames Valley ale yeast leaves behind a mineral flavor, similar to what you find in Bass Ale. You’ll find the same for German lager or wheat beer yeasts.

The key is in the sensory evaluations and asking what the yeast is contributing to the beer. Maybe it’s nothing, but maybe it is something noticeable. If you know about beer styles going into the process, you’ll be able to select the yeast that you need.

Brewer: Marc Rubenstein is the head brewer and co-owner of Middle Ages Brewery in Syracuse, NY

We use only one strain of yeast. We brew British ales, so Ringwood yeast from the Yorkshire coast of England works well for all of our styles. This yeast is used extensively in America. Shipyard Brewery and Geary’s are two examples of craft breweries that employ it.

Ringwood is a two-strain yeast, meaning it was derived from two different strains. Originally it was used for cask-conditioned brews. It is a strain with a reputation for creating an extremely malty profile and finishing estery and fruity. Ringwood is rather difficult yeast to manage because of its high-flocculating characteristics. It also needs a high oxygen content in the wort to work best, plus it tends to have poor stability in storage.

Ultimately, this means that this yeast is a little tricky for homebrewers, but not impossible to deal with. It used to be that this yeast wasn’t even available to homebrewers, but now a couple of yeast labs sell it. Homebrewers who try this strain should pay attention to its unique characteristics; for example, it  benefits from a thorough diacetyl rest after fermentation is complete. Knowing the basic characteristics of your yeast will yield the best results with the least amount of hassle.

Ringwood yeast is a very dominant strain. You can taste it through everything we make here. That’s typical of most yeasts anyway. Homebrewers will discover through experimentation with different yeast strains just how they impact the flavor of their beers. Say, for example, you try the Ringwood strain first and then try other ale yeasts after that. With each successive batch you’ll discover that the yeast impacts the beer’s flavor in ways you may have never imagined. In the early days, homebrewers rarely considered that fact about yeast. Today, it’s equally important as all other ingredients.

Matching strain to style is as much about tradition as it is taste. I know my yeast comes from Ringwood in England. They brew beers that have the same tradition as the beer I brew. That means I’m matching the strain of yeast to the style of beer I produce. But I also like the flavor I get and the resilience of the strain.

Issue: December 2001